The Future of Music Looks Like a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland

Years back, I told my grandfather that I was quitting my 2nd shift mill job to manage a record store. He said it was the “stupidest damn thing” he’d ever heard in his life.

He and my grandmother had worked in mills for much of their lives, and even in those days when the mill hills of my hometown surrounded empty (and often arson-torched) skeletons of old textile mills, a good factory job represented a solid paycheck. I didn’t have anything against the mills myself. The money was good, but let’s face it: I’m clumsy. Even now, 20 years older and 20 years more cautious, I’m an industrial accident waiting to happen.

Two decades down the line, though, my grandfather may have been right. After managing a store for many years, and even owning my own shop for a short time, maybe it’s time for me to admit the whole thing was a fool’s errand all along. After the rise of Napster and file sharing, loss-leading CD prices at big box stores, and countless mom and pop record stores closing their doors, I tend to view any record store owner who’s managed to keep his or her head above water with the same awe that I’d offer a gritty drifter emerging from some post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I’ve since allowed fate and the winds to settle me into the cubicle world, so I’m able to view the changes to music retail with a customer’s distance now. I don’t think I’d have the stomach to view it from a shop owner’s perspective. Those folks must wake up screaming in the dead of night on a regular basis, wondering if some wunderkind has finally come up with the magic bullet that will do record stores in once and for all.

Up until a few months ago, I tracked down music the same as I’d done for years. If I heard a song I liked, I scribbled its name down — and if I didn’t know its name, I’d note the time of day it played in hopes the radio station had its playlist on their website — and tried to track it down later. The Hype Machine website was usually pretty good for tracking down most songs, or at least songs by the same artist. Amazon had its 30-second samples. Maybe YouTube had a video that wasn’t one of the band’s fans sitting in their bedroom playing a cover version. Maybe a friend had a CD they could loan me.

Admittedly, it was an imperfect system that resulted in a fair amount of disappointment. For God’s sake, I’m still hoping to stumble across an R&B song I heard in a Chili’s restaurant about a decade ago. Something about the singer’s man being able to “walk his walk and talk his talk”. That’s all I’ve got…

But what a difference joining the smart phone cult makes. Now if I hear a song, the Shazam app will analyze about 20 seconds of it and give me not only the song’s name, but also its lyrics and a link for purchasing it, as well. From there, on my phone or computer, I can fire up Spotify and listen to not only that song, but the artist’s entire catalog. Every week, I can play my way through a host of new releases. Arguably, it’s catapulted me into a future where, for the most part, I never have to buy music again.

Ah, but I’m too old-school (read: just plain old) for that. I still like to own the physical product, and I chafe every time I hear some record industry wag go on about how the future consists of everyone essentially leasing the right to play music (and re-leasing it every time technology or the device changes) instead of being able to do pretty much whatever I want with a record I buy.

I’m excited, though, because it makes it virtually impossible for me to make an uninformed purchasing decision if I want to be that disciplined about it. I don’t have to wonder if the single I heard is the album’s only good song. I can find out if a good album is an aberration or representative of a band’s catalog. I’m not surprised this strikes fear into the hearts of record executives. So many first-week sales numbers depend on people not knowing how much crap is being shoveled onto the shelves.

So if I use Spotify, Pandora,, or several other streaming services, it’s primarily as research for my next trip rifling through the stacks of the local record stores. Even though I can listen to an amazing new song like Laura Marling’s “The Beast”, Frank Turner’s “English Curse” or the Rosebuds’ “Go Ahead” whenever I want to, now, I don’t actually possess the song.

I get the shakes when people talk about ripping all of their CDs to their computer and then selling all of their CDs. Haven’t these people ever heard of a hard drive crash? Even apart from this terrible, anachronistic collector’s gene in me that says I have to have an object in my hands, this whole idea of MP3’s streaming from remote servers feels very impermanent and ephemeral. I can just imagine some kind of electromagnetic pulse taking out all of the world’s computers, leaving us with little more than the Ferrante and Teicher albums that litter every thrift store in the country.

This ubiquitous streaming feels too good to be true, and like something that will be taken away. The record labels are continually circling streaming companies, looking for bigger pieces of the pie. It’s only a matter of time before they start exerting “pay us more or you don’t get our content” pressure like the movie and television companies have with Netflix. Or maybe the record labels will really shoot themselves in the foot and try to set up their own streaming services.

I already have monthly fee fatigue as it is. Besides, at this point, I’ve been through vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, the vinyl resurgence, and now MP3s. I should get some kind of music veterans’ waiver from some of the nonsense that’s surely coming down the road. Of course with the current political climate as it is, perhaps that’s just too ‘entitlement-thinking’ of an old music veteran like me.